Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Imagine knowing you wanted to play football at the highest level someday at a young age and devoting yourself to your craft early. In high school, you play every position they’ll allow you to. You play both sides of the ball; you impact the game in any way you can.
In college, you do the same. You start to find a home position, but your team needs you in more than one way. You work your butt off to make sure you’re everything your team needs you to be. You’ve become a leader in the locker room and on the stat sheet. You’ve proven yourself time and time again, and now it’s finally time to take the leap.
On draft weekend, you pace around your living room, waiting for the call. You think about all the hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into this moment. And then…
They use a parrot named Zsa Zsa to announce you’ve been drafted.
Alright, so maybe achieving your dream of being draft doesn’t always come the way you though it would. That was probably the case for Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead when he heard his life-long dream be achieved through the mouth of a parrot two years ago. But nonetheless, the Bucs’ fourth-round selection in 2018 had quite the journey to get to that point. One that was certainly worth celebrating – however it happened to become official.
In high school, Whitehead was his team’s best player on offense and defense. As a senior, playing as a running back/wide receiver, Whitehead amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. On defense, he recorded 97 tackles and seven interceptions. Whitehead’s dual-threat ability caught the attention of schools like West Virginia, Ohio State and Penn State, but the Aliquippa, Pennsylvania native ultimately decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh.
It’s not uncommon for the best football players at youth football levels to play multiple positions, even on different sides of the ball. Honestly, there are so many kids who are bad at the game at that age that anytime you get someone who has natural athleticism you’re likely going to make the most out of them in every way. That was the case with Whitehead throughout his youth football days.
But when you jump from high school to the college level, that whole “play eight different positions” phase usually ends. Usually coaches will recognize not only where your skills might fit you best, but also how you can impact the game and the team in the most positive way.
I say usually, but Whitehead isn’t your usual football player.
Whitehead continued to play both sides of the ball, even in college. As a true freshman in 2015, Whitehead played in all 13 of Pitt’s games. The only game he didn’t start that season was the very first one – the coaching staff likely thought “we’re not going to start this true freshman to open the season,” and then did so the rest of the year because he was that good. That season Whitehead recorded 108 tackles, one interception, six pass deflections and one fumble recovery, and was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Whitehead missed a handful of games over his sophomore and junior seasons at Pitt, but when he was on the field, his impact was as good as it had ever been. At the end of his third season, Whitehead had recorded 235 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and also rushed for 362 career yards with an 8.4 yards-per-carry average. That was enough for him to decide to make the jump to the next level, where the Bucs – and Zsa Zsa the parrot – were eagerly waiting to select him at the right spot in the 2018 NFL Draft.
That spot was pick No. 117 in the fourth round, and at the time, Bucs general manager Jason Licht and his staff were very excited about bringing Whitehead down south.
“Those guys from Aliquippa, it’s like those Miami guys, football means everything to them,” Licht during his post-draft press conference. “He certainly is one of those guys. He’s a gym rat. He’s a film junkie. He is tough and he plays like he loves it. He’s going to play safety; he does have some versatility though. He played inside. He played nickel. We’re going to play him at safety. He’s not the biggest guy; he doesn’t know that, though. He doesn’t play like that.”
Aliquippa is a small town of about 10,000 people right outside of Pittsburgh. Though small in number, the town has produced some of the most important people who have ever played the game of football, including Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Ty Law, as well as guys like Curt Singer and Darrelle Revis.
That last one means a lot to Whitehead. Revis and Whitehead share many bonds. Both came from their small town of Aliquppa, both played defensive back, and both attended the University of Pittsburgh before making their jumps to the NFL. But there’s another very important, very close thing these two share: blood.
Revis and Whitehead are cousins. Whitehead remembers as a young kid attending Revis’ draft party in 2007, where his older cousin was selected as a first round pick by the New York Jets. He said he remembers sitting on the floor wearing a Pitt jersey watching his cousin get drafted, and such a memory has not only stuck with him but motivated him throughout his journey.
We weren’t sure exactly where Whitehead would make an early impact for the Buccaneers in 2018. With Justin Evans and Chris Conte slotted to be the starting safeties, plus the experience of Isaiah Johnson ahead of him as well, it didn’t look like we would get much of Whitehead in year one.
But that’s probably what Pitt’s coaches thought going into Whitehead’s first year with the Panthers in college. And we all know that didn’t last, did it?
When Conte went down for the year in Week 3, Whitehead got his shot. The Bucs named Whitehead the starter and he went on to start 11 games during his rookie season. He finished the year with 76 tackles, four passes defended and four tackles for loss.
Going into 2019, Whitehead’s place was once again uncertain. Sure, he now had experience under his belt. But we saw guys like Bradley McDougald have similar success from the safety position and the team just move on from him a few years prior – you just never know with safeties.
Plus a new defensive coordinator coming in that wasn’t here when Whitehead was drafted? You never know. The only way to make it was to – in Bruce Arians’ words – make it so they can’t cut you.
Whitehead did that very early into training camp. Not only did it look like Whitehead packed on an extra 10 pounds in the offseason, he was making the most out of Evans’ absence, as Evans was still sidelined due to his lower body injury which lingered and seemed to worsen during the offseason.
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) July 26, 2019
Jordan Whitehead knocks it away. pic.twitter.com/QqBbx5z6xW
— PewterReport (@PewterReport) August 4, 2019
Not only did Whitehead make it so the Bucs couldn’t cut him, he made it so the Bucs had to start him.
Through two weeks of the season, Whitehead has been everything this team could have wanted him to be when they saw his flashes of production in the preseason. On the stat sheet, he’s second on the team in total tackles two weeks in with 14. Whitehead has been flying to the ball, constantly making his presence known in the run game. It was also Whitehead who came up and stopped Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on a crucial fourth-and-1 attempt in the first half last Thursday, which was a catalyst towards Tampa’s Week 2 win.
But even more notable than the box score stats, to me, are the snap count percentages. Through two weeks, no Bucs player has played more defensive snaps than Whitehead. He played 100 percent of the team’s snaps in Week 1 and 99 percent of their snaps in Week 2. In a football age where we see defensive coordinators rotate their defensive backs in and out frequently to match up with certain players or personnel or pass/run looks, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles trusts Whitehead to be on the field for it all.
Whitehead may not be as versatile position wise as he was during his high school and college days. But two weeks in to his 2019 season with the Buccaneers and his versatility is showing up in other ways. His pro versatility looks different than his college versatility did, but make no mistake, it’s that same sense of natural athleticism and “football means everything to them” that makes it so hard to take him off the field – even if it is just one side of the ball now.
From Pittsburgh to a parrot to now the playmaker of the defense, Whitehead’s presence and versatility in Tampa Bay is a big reason why the Bucs are a Top 10 defense two weeks into the 2019 season.